In our years practicing as speech language pathologists in diverse public schools, Naomi and Jen have worked with children who speak a variety of languages at home. Naomi is a bilingual therapist who often treats children in Spanish. Jen is raising her own daughters bilingually with English and German. Her husband, an Austrian native, has spoken exclusively German to both girls from birth. In addition, both girls were enrolled in Spanish-speaking pre-school classes at Language Stars. The girls are now 8 and 10 years old. They are bilingual in German and English, and they have conversational vocabulary in Spanish.
At SL3, we often receive questions on raising bilingual children including: should I be speaking to my child only in English? If my child has disabilities, should I speak only English? Is learning another language going to hold my child back in school? If my child has autism should I only speak English?
The answer to all these questions is no.
Even if a child has an identified disability, research still supports speaking in the native home language.
Being bilingual has distinct advantages, including:
How to do it
There is limited research on which model is best for children to learn more than one language. At SL3, we recommend speaking to children in whatever language and manner parents normally use. However, if a child exhibits difficulty learning language, we will often recommend being more aware of how language interactions happen at home.
Our top recommendations for language models include:
1. Both parents speak the native language: If neither parent is perfectly fluent in English, then the child should hear ONLY the other language at home. School can teach English. When children are exposed to language from birth, they build phonological (sound) and grammatical areas in their brains specific to each language. If a non-fluent speaker models broken language, research supports that the child will not learn the language fluently. We've worked with many children whose parents, with the best of intentions, have spoken English to their children with broken English. We find that these children often end up looking language impaired.
2. One parent one language: One parent speaks ONLY the second language and one parent speaks ONLY English. This model is only recommended if one parent is a native English speaker.
3. Time of day/place for each language: Language can be switched by time of day or location. For example, in the house, we speak Spanish. When we are out in public, we speak English.
Some of our observations about learning two languages:
1. If children hear both English and another language at home, children will often answer in English, especially if their primary caregiver speaks English. This does not mean that the child can not speak the second language. Children are incredibly smart at identifying the path of least resistance. They will speak in whatever language is easiest for them, and understood by the listener. Parents should not be discouraged at this, or stop speaking the second language. From personal experience, Jen is often surprised when her daughters have lengthy conversations in German while in Austria, because the girls only answer their German-speaking papa in English at home.
2. While fully fluent adults often switch between languages when speaking with other bilingual adults (Vamonos al school and then we'll come home), we recommend that adults DO NOT switch within sentences to their children who have difficulty learning language, as their children are still building brain areas for language.
There is limited research on this area right now. We have worked with many children whose families switch within sentences. We've seen quite a few children who have grammatical constructs in one language with English vocabulary for nouns. Some parents have reported that they speak like this at home, as they are hoping to prepare their children for school. However, we find that these children can look language impaired, as they do not have an effective language to communicate with people outside their family or immediate community who speak with the same mixed sentence structure.
3. Bilingual children might be slower to use their first words. However, they quickly catch up, and surpass monolingual children.
4. For young children, books are tools for learning language. The same rules as above apply. If parents are not fully fluent in a language, it is better to read books to a child in the native language. If native language books are not available, it is advisable to make up stories using the pictures.
America is one of the few countries in the world where children do not regularly learn more than one language. Learning more than one language is a gift that enables people to connect with other places and people. We encourage and support raising children bilingually, and encourage all American educators to do the same.
Evaluating language difference from disorder
According to ASHA best practice, educators must take special care in differentiating language difference from disorder. At our school in Skokie, IL, we found it difficult to identify qualified bilingual evaluators to assess all our children. In order to solve this problem, we started using a response to intervention approach to language intervention, guided by data on the Kindergarten Language Benchmark Assessment. The KLBA is a dynamic assessment that is used to evaluate progress over time.